We can be certain that the body does not survive death. Once the heart stops circulating blood, the brain is no longer nourished and begins to decay. On the basis of medical evidence it would seem that, within a quarter of an hour, the personality is irreparably destroyed and the individual ceases to exist. But now there is mounting scientific evidence for a life after death.
In At the Hour of Death, veteran psychical researchers Karlis Osis, Ph.D and Erlendur Haraldsson, Ph.D collated compelling evidence that suggests we, as conscious beings, do survive physical death.
This book is the product of extensive interviews of over 1,000 doctors and nurses who have been present when cases of “post-mortem existence” have occurred. Extensive computer analyses of their observations have been made.
The results are reported in this first truly scientific investigation of the experiences of the dying at the hour of death.
What these doctors and nurses have witnessed cannot be explained away by medical, psychological, cultural, or other conditioning. Yet it may answer the fundamental question of human existence.
* * * * * * * *
“Finally, a book that probes death and dying with modern research techniques. Osis and Haraldsson present compelling evidence that the deathbed is the gateway to another existence. The visions of the dying appear to be not hallucinations but glimpses through the windows of eternity.”
—Alan Vaughan, editor of New Realities Magazine
“A major contribution to the scientific study of the question of post-mortem existence. —Raymond A. Moody, M.D., author of Life After Life
About the author
Erlendur Haraldsson, Ph.D., was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1931. After finishing his studies at the gymnasium (college), he studied philosophy in Copenhagen, Edinburgh and Freiburg for four years, worked for a few years as a journalist and writer, traveling extensively in western Asia and India. During that time, he wrote a book on the Kurdish uprising in Iraq, which was published in Iceland and Germany.
He studied psychology at the German universities of Freiburg and Munich and received the diploma of psychology, a degree which is equivalent to the M.A. in the United States. From 1969 to 1970 he was a research fellow at Dr. J. B. Rhine’s Institute of Parapsychology in Durham, North Carolina.
Haraldsson underwent his internship in clinical psychology from 1970 to 1971 in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He spent some of that time at the university’s Division of Perceptual Studies which was headed by Prof. Ian Stevenson with whom he later conducted studies of mediumship and of children who claim to remember past lives. Early in 1972, Haraldsson obtained his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Freiburg.
He was a research associate in 1972 and 1973 at the American Society for Psychical Research in New York working with Karlis Osis on the extensive cross-cultural study of deathbed visions. Since 1974, he has been professor of psychology at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik.
Haraldsson has published over seventy papers in peer-reviewed journals in America and Europe, has written many chapters for edited books, the latest being for Exploring the Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship. He is the author of six books. Among them are At the Hour of Death (with Karlis Osis), Modern Miracles, and The Departed Among the Living.
Karlis Osis, Ph.D., was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1917, and is one of the few psychologists to have obtained a Ph.D. with a thesis dealing with extrasensory perception (University of Munich, 1950).
As research associate of the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University from 1951 to 1957, Osis was a colleague of Dr. J. B. Rhine. In his research there, Osis pioneered experiments on ESP in animals and worked with humans to study ESP over the dimensions of space and time. Then, widening the scope of his activities, he served as director of research at the Parapsychology Foundation in New York City, where he conducted novel experiments with mediums and a large-scale survey of deathbed observations by physicians and nurses (1957-62). Cases of apparitions seen by several persons, and cases of poltergeist phenomena were also studied.
From 1962 to 1975, Osis was director of research at the American Society for Psychical Research in New York. He is presently a Chester F. Carlson Research Fellow of the ASPR. During this time, Osis conducted a number of pioneering efforts in parapsychology.
He conducted his second survey on deathbed observations by physicians and nurses to collect data suggestive of life after death. In an interview with creative artists, Osis found altered states of consciousness to be related to states conducive to ESP. Altered states of consciousness induced by meditation were studied in a four-year project. Osis also explored the relationship between mediumship and ESP by laboratory work with small, carefully selected groups of experienced meditators. Basic dimensions of the meditation experience were worked out by means of factor analysis.
Osis is well known for his long-distance ESP experiments—up to ten thousand miles—and for his research on the ESP channel—that is, an unknown energy which transmits ESP.
In the 1970s, Osis conducted extensive laboratory experiments on out-of-body experiences. These involved perceptual> physiological (EEG), and physical measurements. Together with Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson, he conducted a large-scale survey of the experiences of dying patients in India, which provided data for cross-cultural comparison between India and the United States. They also studied psychic phenomena in selected Yogis, particularly Sri Sathya Sai Baba, in southern India.
Osis is past president of the Parapsychological Association and a member of the American Psychological Association, Eastern Psychological Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Society for Scientific Study of Religion, and various organizations concerned with the study of psychic phenomena and human personality. Osis passed away on December 26, 1997.
Visions of Another World: Afterlife as Seen Through the Eyes of the Dying
EMERGING from anesthesia, a twenty-six-year-old American was asked the standard orientation question: “Can you tell me where you are?” “Yes, in heaven,” he replied and immediately lapsed into a coma. He died half an hour later. Did this man perceive his postmortem destination, or was he simply disoriented?
Whichever the case, he was not unique, and assuming that he truly saw “Heaven,” we can say that among terminal patients, hallucinations of environments rather than of persons are far from rare. They range from Gardens of Paradise to earthly factories.
Our research brought 112 such cases to light. We will examine them, asking specific questions in order to evaluate the central issue: Did some of these patients glimpse another mode of existence, or were they just hallucinating? If they did discern something real, what do their visions reveal about the nature of this other environment? Can we trust the eyes of the dying?
Our study shows that dying patients hallucinate people five times more often than environments and objects, while drug-induced hallucinations portray things and places more often than people (Siegel and Jarvik, 1975). Including the patients who recovered from a close brush with death, as well as those who died, we compiled 703 cases of hallucinations. Of these, 591 portrayed persons. Visions of places and things were dominant in only 16 percent of the reported hallucinations.
We explored whether such a striking difference in frequency might have its roots in respondent bias. Apparition cases may be more impressive and therefore more easily recalled by our respondents, while hallucinations of environment could easily be dismissed as disorientation and forgotten. In addition, patients may be more reluctant to talk about visions of another world due to fear of ridicule than they would be to mention a visit from Uncle John.
We assume that doctors and nurses would be more attentive if the patient were a relative or friend. Respondent bias can be evaluated by comparing the frequency of cases in which the patient was related or a friend to those in which there were no such relationships. In the same manner we might determine a patient bias, assuming that patients would more easily confide an unusual experience to a relative or friend.
One-third (31 percent) of the vision cases were reported by relatives and friends—certainly a much larger proportion of familiar patients than expected in hospitals. Similarly, 24 percent of apparition cases were experienced by relatives and friends. The difference is too small to explain the discrepancy in terms of respondent bias.
We cannot offer an explanation of the difference.
Let us now take a look at the cases themselves. We have 64 American and 48 Indian cases. About two-thirds (69) originate from terminal patients, while one-third (43) come from those who did not die. As in ESP cases, the visions were brief. Half (52 percent) of the cases for which we have information lasted from a few seconds to five minutes. Three-quarters of them (75 percent) were over in fifteen minutes, while only 16 percent continued longer than an hour. Judging from duration only, 25 percent of the cases bear no similarity to ESP experiences, while in 75 percent of the cases ESP might be considered.
What did they see? What was the subject matter of their visions? Two-thirds seemed to picture another world, while 32 percent saw places and objects of this world. A characteristic vision of this-world imagery was seen by a man in his fifties who was suffering from a circulatory disease and uremia. He saw “old masted ships” sailing on the ceiling of the hospital room. In his excitement he pointed them out to the nurse, who reported, “He really, really saw them in his mind.
You would have to go along with him, saying that you saw them too.”
In another case, a young Catholic missionary had a high fever. She saw “the boat coming” for her. The nurse thought that this indicated her awareness of oncoming death, but there are many boats which she might have remembered without any death symbolism. After this hallucination, she felt as miserable and nauseous as before.
Not all visions end up like that, however. The wife of a Pennsylvania doctor found herself in beautiful surroundings where green grass and flowers grow.
She seemed very pleased, happy that she could see these pleasant things. She said that it was like a garden with green grass and flowers. She was fond of flowers and had a garden at home.
She was depressed, dying of a liver disease at the age of eighty. After the vision she became very peaceful and serene. The vision represented a place “like a garden,” but not an actual garden, and she died a serene death a few hours later. Was this a glimpse of the beyond? Could an image of earthly grass and flowers cause a woman who had been depressed to be happy at the time of death? A rather matter-of-fact, unemotional buyer for a department store was dying of cancer. She was in her fifties, her mind was very clear, her judgment was good.
She saw open gates and felt she was going to a place with flowers, lights, colors, and a lot of beauty. A voice said, “Come to my garden.” She was annoyed with me for disturbing her and accused me of not permitting her to get into this place. She was aware of the hospital room after I disturbed her. She was calmed by the vision. She was thrilled with it and angry at me.
This patient did not talk about God or religion, but peace came over her and she became “more quiet, less complaining, not so restless.” She never identified the voice, but the expression sounds biblical.
A college-educated woman in her eighties was suffering from a cardiac failure.
She was an unusual patient, very alert and intellectual, keen sense of humor. She was a down to earth person. That morning she was listless, but her temperature and pulse were normal.
She told me that a taxi driver had taken her to a beautiful garden where she saw beautiful, endless gardens, all kinds of flowers.
She said that she had never seen anything like it, it was gorgeous. She did not want to return, but the taxi driver was impatient to get started. He took too long to get home, taking all the wrong streets. She would go back there any day—beautifully done garden. It sounded like a dream to me, but it seemed real to her. Four days later she died peacefully.
A taxi to Heaven? That seems too urbanized to accept as “otherworldly.” However, we must realize that all visions which are translated into the language of this world must necessarily be filtered through the imagery of this world. “Gates,” “flowers,” and “grass” are no less material than a yellow cab or a cow (the vehicle for an Indian woman’s transition to the other world). The connecting link is that peculiar beauty beyond reality which the respondent identified in this vision.
We must rely in our analysis on experiential qualities, rather than imagery.
In the previously cited cases, something otherworldly was hinted at but not designated as such. The patient in the following case said it more directly. She was a miner’s widow in her fifties suffering from a cardiac disease.
She saw a beautiful garden with a gate. God was standing there and an angel was nearby. She insisted that God had appeared to her. She would get well if she stayed with me [the doctor]. She had just been transferred to my care. The vision gave her serenity and confidence in her recovery. She followed church doctrines, but wasn’t a regular churchgoer.
A registered nurse in her twenties was suffering from malignant hypertension which led to a stroke.
She said that she saw gates leading into a vast country, vast space. She felt utter peace, no fear, no worries. As the gates were opening she began to improve. Her speech, which had been affected, cleared up. The experience was very reassuring to her, completely eliminating her fear of death.
She was healed. Psychologically speaking, the “gates” were real; the vision resulted in serenity and peace.
Another patient did not want to come back when Saint Peter told her that he was not ready for her. The place was so beautiful that she wanted to stay. How can the visions be so gratifying that they even outweigh the wish to live? The patient was unable to say.
A seventy-eight-year-old woman was reported as always nasty, a very mean person. One night she called me to see how lovely and beautiful heaven is. Then she looked at me and seemed surprised: “Oh, but you can’t see it, you aren’t here [in heaven], you are over there.” She became very peaceful and happy. She felt at ease, pleased, and she permitted her meanness to die. She became so much better. I don’t think these are hallucinations, they are visions—very real.
And then there are visions with a ring of technological grandeur.
One nurse reported on an Irish milkman in his seventies who was suffering from “cerebral spasms.”
All of a sudden he had a sort of glow about his face and he said, “You know these wonderful things they are doing today, all the Sputniks and all those rocket things up there,” and he looked at me and said, “I was up there and they did not let me in.” He seemed to be happy. That glow—it was almost like a trance. It was very strange.
The nurse mused and described another unusual incident at the end of this patient’s life.
He died on a Tuesday in Connecticut—the day after his sister’s death in Ohio. He mentioned seeing his sister Mary in the hospital, but he did not know that she was dead. He and Mary were very close.
Often such “seeing” changes the patient’s attitude toward dying.
A fifty-year-old Philadelphia housewife felt that she had visited heaven. She said that she had been in that beautiful place. “If heaven is like that, then I’m ready.” She was very happy about it and calm.
These cases present the spectrum of dying patients’ visions of Heaven. We find no indication of a unique locality in the manner which would be expected if several individuals described Grand Canyon or New York City. The ostensibly nonmaterial reality is pictured in very material terms: a garden where the grass is very, very green and the flowers are very, very beautiful. Of course, no one said that the grass grew so well because it was fertilized and sprinkled or that the flowers were made of carbohydrates like earthly ones. “Seeing Heaven” did not arouse such questions in any patient, regardless of education or occupation. Whether trees, buildings, or space rockets, the visions all used images of earthly things to fashion their heaven. Yet these experiences seemed to be very meaningful to the patients, often changing their outlook on life and death.
Heaven is sometimes pictured as a secluded, well-organized place, complete with someone like an immigration officer. The patient is “called to the gates,” but entry may be postponed by the pronouncement of Saint Peter, saying, “I am not ready for you.” A nurse arriving at the patient’s side to revive him with an injection was said to be “interrupting the appointment which will never come again.” Such talk does not sound reasonable from our worldly point of view.
Nevertheless, these dying patients felt that they had something great to tell.
Here is the experience, reported by a nurse, of a rather unemotional woman in her sixties whose job was assisting in buying food for the hospital.
The patient said, “It looked like a great sunset, very large, you know, and beautiful. The clouds suddenly appeared to be gates.” She felt that somebody was calling her to them, that she had to go through there. “It was very pretty.”
The interviewer asked: “Did she see through the clouds?”
No, no, she just saw what appeared to be gates formed from the beautiful clouds of the sunset. She was not exactly called, she had the idea that she was drawn to the gates, I suppose. After this vision the patient became very serene. She said that she was now prepared to die. Before she had qualms whether she wanted to go.
And the message got through to the nurse:
I must have had some feelings about it because I kept calling her daughter-in-law. It was something that was very interesting to me. It had strong religious overtones. These are things you feel, but you can’t talk about them.
The same experiential qualities seem to be hidden behind the “gates” seen by this seventy-year-old woman:
She felt that she died and was going to the gates. They began to open for her. They were bright and very beautiful.
Likewise, the same expression of extraordinary “brightness” appeared in the following case.
She said that the gates of heaven were opening. There were shining tall portals and there was shining light, much brighter than here. Everything looked so bright.
“Light” here seems to sum up the symbolic message which mystics have tried to convey over the centuries.
How frequently do patients “see Heaven”? We have specific information concerning this question in 100 cases. One-third (32 percent) are clearly hallucinations of this-world places and objects, while two-thirds are concerned with otherworldly matters. Images of Heaven were reported most frequently (41 percent). Gardens and landscapes with intense colors, brilliant lights, and beauty were reported in 16 percent of the cases, and symbolic architectural structures comprise 5 percent. Nearly all of the otherworldly environments are expressed through visual imagery.
In sharp contrast to hallucinations of the mentally ill, who mainly “hear” rather than “see,” sacred music or heavenly choruses are heard in only 6 percent of our cases. Because ESP impressions are also mostly visual, we find here another similarity between deathbed visions and ESP.
We found only one case in all the American and Indian data where a patient saw “Hell.” If these visions stem from programming imparted by religious upbringing, should we not expect more of such cases? The unfortunate person was an Italian-born housewife from Rhode Island. Her vision occurred after a gallbladder operation.
When she came to she said, “I thought I was dead, I was in hell.” Her eyes were popping out of fear. “My God, I thought I was in hell.” After I reassured her, she told about her experience in hell and said that the devil will take her. This was interspersed with descriptions of her sins and what people think about her. As fear increased, nurses had difficulty holding her down. She almost became psychotic and her mother had to be called in to quiet her.
She had long standing guilt feelings, possibly stemming from marriage to a man who was 25 years older than her and an extramarital relationship which resulted in illegitimate children. Her sister’s death from the same illness scared her. She believed that God was punishing her for her sins.
One does not need to be a psychiatrist to trace the worldly origins of her “Hell”—the conflict between the “ought” and the “is” of her lovelife.
Ethereal music was heard by a Connecticut plumber. In spite of severe pain following a cancer operation, he was “very serene, it was pleasant to him. He wanted to know if we heard it and told us that it was beautiful.” Apparently, his serenity was contagious: “It was a pleasure to be with him—deep satisfaction in helping even if you don’t pull them through.”
For the wife of a department store owner, the hallucinated music was simply “something wonderful that happened.”
In another case the music seemed to intimate a foretaste of the other world: “She heard music like a huge choir and saw pleasant surroundings like she was near heaven.”
In all cases, hearing music seems to express a harmonious experience. Serenity and harmony is surprising in suffering patients, as in the following case of the sixty-two-year-old wife of an actor, who was tortured by advanced cancer.
She had a very peculiar look on her face. I rearranged her pillows, slightly elevating her back. She was very lucid. I stepped out of the room. When I came back, her eyes were open, then she had this look on her face, not aware of me, smile, raised right arm as if reaching for something, resting quietly.
She seemed to be somewhere else, I can’t explain, transposed to another world. I spoke to her, she did not answer. Later she told me that she had heard organ music, saw angels in brilliant white. She was smiling more broadly—very pleased at the whole thing.
Here we can ask the parapsychological question: Where was her consciousness—in her body or really “transposed” via an out-of-body experience? A sixty-nine-year-old stroke patient was partially paralyzed and depressed.
Suddenly his face lit up, pain gone, smiling—he hadn’t been cheerful until then. He said, “How beautiful,” as if he could see something we couldn’t see. And then, “No body, no world, flowers, light and my Mary [deceased wife].” He was released and peaceful, went into a coma and died shortly after.
A nineteen-year-old college student, dying of leukemia, had sensations which are typical in out-of-body experiences.
He had heard the angels singing and music. He felt like he was floating. Peace followed the hallucination—he seemed to be restless before.
A typical out-of-body experience was described by a sixty-eight year-old salesman who
felt he had gone through the window to the outside. He felt suspended in air, floating, as though lifted out of bed. He had no pain or any other sensation during the floating.
A college-educated pharmaceutical salesman in his late thirties suffered a severe heart attack.
He thought he was flying deep in space. He thought he was riding in a space capsule. Objects, people went floating past him. He was struggling to get out of there.
Here the same sensations seem to be interpreted in technological images of the space age.
A pneumonia patient in her fifties felt that she had died.
She found herself up in the sky. It looked like clouds. She was walking on clouds. She saw many castles there. They were in bright light, very beautiful. She was so impressed with their beauty. Afterwards she became quiet—real acceptance of death.
When we consider that an afterlife might be nothing other than a permanent out-of-body experience, then the experiential qualities in some of the cases cited are consistent with the postmortem survival hypothesis.
Visions of extraordinary, intense light and color are not uncommon. In 17 cases they are specifically mentioned, but they might be inferred in many more.
Experiential qualities with emotional overtones were identified in 50 cases. Experiences of great beauty were reported in 72 percent of the cases of which we have information. Peace was an outstanding characteristic in 14 percent of the patients. The visions were threatening or otherwise negatively toned in 14 percent of the cases, and most of these were located in this world—for example, a vicious dog attacking a patient who had been severely injured in an accident.
Peace was the core experience in the following cases. A seventy-eight-year-old German-born mill foreman suffered very severe angina pain.
When he had visions the pain would disappear and all you could see was a smile on his face. “It was so beautiful, you just can’t tell anyone. It was a breathtaking scene, more so than anything in real life.” That was all he could say.
A nurse told of a Pennsylvania Dutch patient in her fifties:
When she was sick, she was there in heaven. “Oh, it was so peaceful,” she exclaimed. But she continued to have pain just like before.
A young woman nearly bled to death during childbirth.
She thought that she had come into this other world, “It was so beautiful, quiet, peaceful, serene.” She repeated, “It was so beautiful.” The patient was gone for a little while, not dead, but it was touch and go.
Sometimes we found textbook examples of symbolic imagery as in this case. “A lonely veteran became very excited and said he saw a beautiful room and all the people there were waiting to greet him.” A terminally ill bank teller remarked that “he had seen across the river a golden light.” Then he said to the relatives present that he would “see them on the other side.” Bridges and the other shore are common symbols of transition.
Experiences beyond description were explicitly mentioned in only three cases, although ineffability is said to be one of the main characteristics of mystical experience and psychedelic trips (Clark, 1969; Pahnke, 1966; Stace, 1960).
Symbolism of death was discernible in 43 vision cases. Nearly all (84 percent) pictured death as a transition to another state of existence that was deeply gratifying.
As previously stated, two-thirds of the visions depicted otherworldly environments while one-third dealt with this-world surroundings. We took another look at the data by asking how the surroundings appeared to the patients. Again, mundane appearances were relatively infrequent: threatening, 10 percent; everyday environment, 14 percent. Beautiful but natural environments were seen in 21 percent of the cases, while extraordinary beauty beyond reality was the most frequent appearance (37 percent). Conventional Christian, Hindu, or Muslim ideas of the other world were expressed in surprisingly few (17 percent) of the cases. Apparently neither the Bible, the Gita nor the Koran had etched the majority of the visions of the dying. The imprint of conventional images—such as “the Pearly Gates”—was clearly discernible in only one out of every six cases.
We have indicated throughout this chapter the main features of visions of another world as seen through the eyes of the dying.
There are seven main characteristics indicated by our data. We can summarize them as follows.
1. Subject matter of the vision
2. Appearance of surroundings
3. Emotional qualities of the visionary imagery (seeing great beauty and peace)
4. Death symbolism
5. Ostensible location of the patient’s consciousness
6. Emotional effects
7. Religious emotional reaction
Having identified them, what can we now say about these characteristics? Are they really indicative of another world in which humans enjoy an afterlife?
So far, our analysis has revealed that about one-fourth to one-third of the vision cases are rooted in this-world matters while two-thirds to three-fourths of the cases were judged to have content and subject matter suggestive of another world. According to the afterlife hypothesis, the visions which contain otherworldly subject matter would include some ESP glimpses of a postmortem existence, while the remaining third (visions with mundane concerns) would be entirely subjective—a kind of waking dream.
Our model indicates that mundane hallucinations would be fully dependent upon hallucinogenic medical factors, psychological variables, and cultural forces, while the otherworldly visions would be relatively independent of such factors because of their ostensible external origin. We tested this hypothesis by examining the extent to which the main phenomena are swayed by the above-mentioned factors.
First question: Could brain disturbances be the cause? Brain disease, injury, stroke, and uremia accounted only for 10 percent of the cases. Therefore, they could explain only a small part of the data. Did diseases affecting the brain generate more of the phenomena which are suggestive of another world than patients who were free of brain disturbances? One out of seven characteristics of the visions—seeing great beauty and peace—was significantly (p = .01) affected; 80 percent of the brain-disturbed patients experienced beauty, while only 32 percent of the patients with other diagnoses saw scenes of great beauty and peace. None of the remaining characteristics interacted significantly, but four of the six tended to be the same way. That is, otherworldly characteristics were reported slightly more often among brain-disturbed patients.
Likewise, these patients reacted with positive emotions and with religious feelings less often than the other patients. This is the same trend that was found in apparition cases. These results are certainly not expected according to our hypothesis of postmortem survival.
They suggest that the experience of beauty and peace might be generated by brain disturbance. However, our sample of just 10 patients with brain maladies is too small to reach firm conclusions.
We need to consider these results in conjunction with analysis of the rest of the medical factors.
Narcotic and psychedelic substances acting on the brain can generate beautiful visions. Could visions of the dying be considered just another “drug trip” caused by a chemically or otherwise disturbed brain? We had data on medication for 94 patients. In the judgment of respondents, consciousness was affected by drugs in 18 percent of the cases. However, the effect was too slight to cause hallucinations in half of them, leaving only 9 percent with moderate or strong impairments. We analyzed the interactions of medication and the seven main characteristics of the visions. There was no relationship whatsoever between medication and experiential characteristics suggestive of an afterlife.
Medical history and background diagnoses which might cause hallucinations were present in 21 percent of the cases. As previously explained, this is an inflated measure often based upon respondents’ vague suspicions rather than facts. It did not interact significantly with any of the seven characteristics.
Body temperature higher than 103º was practically absent (7 percent) and therefore could not have shaped the experiences.
Clarity of consciousness at the time of the vision was clearly indicated in 96 cases. Clarity was normal in 35 percent of the cases, mildly impaired though communication was still possible in 27 percent of the cases, and strongly impaired in 37 percent of the cases. In sharp contrast to the apparition cases, the clarity of consciousness was drastically reduced during the visions of environment.
Were visions with characteristics suggestive of another world generated mainly by those whose consciousness was impaired? This was not the case. There were no significant interactions with the seven main characteristics of the phenomena, with one exception: 77 percent of the impaired felt as though they were “elsewhere,” while 50 percent of the clearly conscious patients felt transported—for example, to a beautiful garden. The clearly conscious experienced another world, beauty and peace, death symbolism, and appropriate emotions with approximately the same frequency as those with impairments of consciousness. Apparently, impairment of consciousness does not shape the phenomena to a substantial extent.
Our findings indicate that the characteristics of visions of environment may to a considerable extent be independent of medical conditions, although in cases of brain maladies visions could be caused by them.
Patients’ sex does not significantly shape any of the characteristics of vision phenomena, either, although a definite difference exists.
Women experienced more otherworldly subject matter and saw surroundings as more otherworldly.
Age does not interact significantly with any of the vision characteristics.
Patients’ education interacted significantly (p = .01) with only one variable. High-school-educated patients saw more otherworldly visions (89 percent) than the less-educated (57 percent) or college-educated patients (61 percent). We have no interpretation to offer on this point.
Patients’ belief in life after death doubled the frequency of visions symbolizing death as a gratifying transition (p = .003) and responses with religious emotions (p = .006). Belief did not significantly change the frequency of experiences of beauty and peace and the frequency of images of another world. Apparently, the belief in life after death changes very little of the afterlife images themselves, but rules the religious emotions and sharply increases positive valuation of death.
Patients’ personal involvement in religion did not affect the subject matter of visions at all. Deeply involved patients saw gardens, gates, and Heaven no more often than those of lesser or no involvement.
Experiences of great beauty and peace were also independent of the degree of patients’ involvement in religion. However, deep involvement in religion sharply increased the symbolization of death as a 176 transition to a gratifying existence, from 27 percent to 53 percent (p = .06). It more than doubled the frequency of responses with religious emotions, from 23 percent to 62 percent (p = .006).
Apparently, visionary imagery suggestive of another world does not depend on deep involvement in religion, but positive emotional reactions to death are more evident among deeply religious patients.
Patients who thought they would recover and those who expected to die saw visions of another world with the same frequency. Their expectations or wishful thinking apparently did not shape the visions.
Evidence of stress such as anxiety, restlessness and depression had no influence on the frequency of otherworldly visions. Patients who showed no such signs of stress experienced images of another world as often as patients who had these indices. Apparently, the visions of another world are not generated in order to cope with unbearable stress by conjuring up cheerful images of Heaven.
On the whole, we found that those characteristics of visions which are suggestive of afterlife seem reasonably independent of psychological factors discussed above. Belief in life after death and involvement in religion do not change the content of visions but significantly increase the positive symbolization of death and reactions with religious emotions.
Indian and American Experiences of Heaven
Do Indians and Americans see Heaven in the same way, or are their visions as different as the Bible is from the Vedas? Do we get only a playback of Scriptures and traditions, or do patients of both cultures see basically the same? If the other world does not exist, a playback is the main content to be expected. If the dying really perceive a postmortem reality—however poorly—then some more similarity should emerge from their observations.
Interaction of the phenomena with patients’ religion were evaluated in the U.S. sample. No significant relationships were found.
Unfortunately, we had too few non-Hindu patients in India for a meaningful comparison. All we can do is compare the Indian visions with the American.
Otherworldly matters were portrayed slightly more often in Indian visions (77 percent) than in American visions (62 percent).
Both cultures were more alike than different in this respect. Another analysis concerning the appearance of surroundings also showed similarity. Conventional images of Heaven combined with “places of extraordinary beauty beyond reality” were as common in India (52 percent) as in the United States (58 percent). While 17 percent of the American patients saw threatening environments (mainly of this world), none of the Indian patients reported such surroundings. Let us remember that Indians did see threatening apparitions much more frequently than American patients. Perhaps Americans project their fears on places, while Indians project them on persons.
Indians considered their visions to be religious (67 percent) slightly more often than Americans (55 percent). Symbolizations of death, where they could be ascertained, mainly depicted death as a transition to a gratifying reality in both countries (United States, 77 percent; India, 90 percent). Great beauty and peace dominated visions in both cultures (United States, 82 percent; India, 94 percent). Experiences in both countries are basically similar. The slight differences observed are well within the range of sampling errors and respondents’ biases.
Emotional effects from the experiences, however, are not significantly different. Indians are more emotionally responsive, and experienced more positive emotions (India, 66 percent; United States, 57 percent) and less negative feelings (India, 9 percent; United States, 19 percent).
Another look at emotional reactions showed that Indians reacted with religious emotions twice as often as Americans, 47 percent and 24 percent, respectively. The difference is not statistically significant (p = 10).
Indian and American patients saw the same kinds of visions, but Indian emotional reactions were more lively, more positive, and more religious. From these statistics it seems that Indians see the heavenly abode while in a happier mood than American patients.
Let us now take a critical look at the visions themselves in Indian reports. We again see two kinds of experiences—those of the mundane world and those of another world.
A young man from Agra dying from a bullet wound in his chest told about a very worldly celebration.
“I am in a village fair, lots of people are present.” He was describing it vividly as if aware of actual showroom things.
Visions beyond this life again had the perceptual quality of intense “light.” An engineer in his forties suffered a heart attack.
He described things lit in very bright light coming toward him just before his death. He said, “Now I am going to die. Please don’t disturb me—no medicine.”
His mood changed to serenity and peace, and he died in ten minutes.
A Hindu farm laborer, after gaining consciousness, told that he had been to a place which was very beautiful, a nice place. It looked as if it was Swarag—Heaven.
But what does Swarag look like? A Hindu housewife of Allahabad told a bit more: “Look, I am seeing heaven. There are beautiful gardens with flowers.” So far, it sounds like the American cases, but then she added some Indian warmth to it: “Children are playing and singing there. Many people, high houses. There I also saw God. It looks very beautiful.” The respondent said, “She feels very happy, even now when she describes it years after her recovery.”
A Hindu student in his twenties was dying of smallpox in Aligarh. His experience seems to give an academic twist to the imagery of Heaven.
Twenty minutes after the hallucination the patient told me, “I have seen beautiful buildings and gardens surrounded by hills. I saw noble persons, learned persons. All were very happy and cheerful.” Then he realized, “I am going to die,” and after that he started to cry.
Apparently the Hindu Heaven was as beautiful and serene as the Christian Paradise, but the student was not ready to go.
A young nurse, who was a Christian converted to Islam through marriage, was bleeding to death from a ruptured uterus.
She saw all the comforts of the next life, beautifully furnished interiors with sofas, etc. No sorrow, nothing disgusting— everything is gay and happy there. [Then the doctor added dryly,] She wanted to attain more worldly comfort there than a well placed doctor can get in this world.
(Apparently, there is nothing stingy about being “up there.”) A forty-year-old man with a gastric infection told his nurse:
“I see a temple with closed doors. Open the doors for me, I have to go to God.” Later he saw messengers of death in black clothes: “They are coming to take me.”
He became serene. Apparently this was the Hindu counterpart of Christian “gates” and their way of entry.
A Hindu from Bihar in his forties was suffering from gangrene and came very close to death.
He said the next morning: “Yesterday I was in a beautiful place.
There were beautiful gardens and a temple with many gods residing in it.” From his description it seemed that he was seeing heaven.
His mood was miserable before and became serene and peaceful after the vision. He recovered. Like the sight of the Christian Heaven, this vision left him in serene acceptance of death.
The vision of an Indian Christian, a nurse, was similar to Hindu experiences, except that she saw her Lord:
I felt myself going up. There was a beautiful garden full of flowers. I was sitting there. Suddenly I felt beaming light and Jesus Christ came to me. He sat and talked to me. Light was all around.
She became very peaceful and gradually recovered from typhoid fever.
A young Hindu housewife was in a coma for two days because of infection during pregnancy. Her heaven was different. “She saw big boxes full of fine clothes and attractive jewelry. She put on the best of them and then danced.” But she did not quite dance her way into Heaven—she recovered.
A seventeen-year-old Hindu girl was badly hurt in an accident, unconscious for twelve hours. She saw a beautiful garden with girls playing there, good-looking girls. “Let me go and play in the garden, it’s a very nice garden, let me go.”
Instead of letting her go, the medical personnel decided that she was violent and gave her a shot of morphine.
We didn’t find American cases of dancing and playing. Perhaps our Heaven is too solemn for that. But why did they all come back from such lovely places? Here are those who didn’t want to return.
A college-educated patient in his thirties suffering from a liver disease thought that he was dead and told the nurse later:
After death I went to heaven. It looked beautiful. There were beautiful gardens full of flowers. I saw Yamdoots [messengers of death], of black complexion. I also saw Yamaraj [king of death], all black, tall, and in robust health.
This patient didn’t want to come back; he wanted to remain there.
Here he made his choice in favor of dying—a choice which he dreaded before the vision.
A college-educated man in his twenties chose to end his life in suicide by barbiturate poisoning. He felt himself to be in Heaven, but the doctor thought otherwise.
The patient was calling irrelevantly, saying, “I am in heaven.
There are so many houses around me, so many streets with big trees bearing sweet fruit and small birds singing in the trees.”
In the United States, some cases resembled out-of-body experiences of floating and flying. Some Indians also report floating in empty space. A Hindu business proprietor told his doctor, “I was going in circles in the sky—smooth journey.”
The doctor asked him what vehicle, but he was not sure about that.
A Christian nurse was undergoing a cesarean section. “I was put on the operating table. I prayed. I felt myself going higher and higher, I was very peaceful. I felt dying is a very peaceful experience.”
A Farrukhabad housewife in her forties seemed to have died of pneumonia.
The patient was taken for dead. Resuscitation methods were applied. No response for 10-15 minutes. She was unconscious.
Then she recovered, opened her eyes. She said that she had died. “I was going in space. There was nothing but space.” She did not want to go back there in space.
A college-educated member of the Indian Communist party adhered to a materialistic philosophy. During cardiac arrest he felt himself flying among clouds. He thought it was a beautiful place, but not of this earth. He felt himself very light, riding on the clouds. He heard music and also some singing in the background.
When he recognized that he was alive, he was sorry that he had to leave this beautiful place. When he told about this he seemed to have enjoyed the experience. He was a jolly college graduate, joked a lot. He was not a sentimental person, not religious, very independent of his family, and liked to see a lot of movies. He said: “That was the bright spot of my illness, to be out of the misery and suffering of humanity.”
A strange trip for a nonbeliever.
A myocardial infarction case: “She went to a place where she saw high mountains covered with snow. All white. There were no signs of life. She was pleased to be there.” No American saw a snow-covered Paradise, but in India, snow is associated with the grandeur of the Himalayas.
A fifty-year-old patient was afflicted with cancer of the rectum.
“The patient said that he was feeling as though he was in Benares, Allahabad, Mathava and other holy places. After that, he meant, he would go to heaven.” In other cases, the holy places “visited” were Varanasi and the Taj Mahal. We found no “astral pilgrimage” cases in the United States.
We had many American cases in which patients resented the gates of Paradise remaining closed—the doctors revived the patient, who then responded with resentment. The Indian data showed similar cases of resentment toward doctors for saving the patient’s life.
A Hindu constable’s lung was removed because of advanced tuberculosis: One day we thought he was dead and we administered heart massage—no heartbeat for 1-2 minutes. He was unconscious for 2-3 minutes. Then his heart started to beat again and he reproached the nurses: “Why did you call me back? I have been to a beautiful garden, very good garden which I cannot describe.” For two hours he was alive, then he died. He was happy about the experience, but feeling very sorry that he was brought back from that beautiful place.
Again there was the same overwhelming experience of beauty and resentment for being revived as found in some American cases.
A Hindu farmer in his sixties underwent a cardiac arrest. He was revived within a few minutes by the medical team. The patient told that he was taken to a palace made of silver, furniture was made of silver with silk cushions. A few ladies wearing beautiful ornaments were sitting in a pool as if they were only waiting for him. All five village leaders (judges) were seated in the middle of the palace to welcome him. The palace was filled with perfume. The patient was very happy about this experience of a lovely palace. He became rather angry at the doctor: “Why have you saved me?”
This poor farmer’s vision was sensuous rather than spiritual, but great beauty was there nevertheless. We described several American cases in which the patient was rejected from the other world. Numerous Indian patients also were “sent back,” but in a more dramatic way.
A young Hindu girl was considered to be dead, but regained consciousness. This is how a doctor reported her story.
Two messengers tied her with ropes on a stretcher and carried her up to God. There she saw beautiful people—women. They were cooking meals. She was tempted to eat. On a high place she saw a very influential person sitting in a decorated chair. He said to the messengers, “Why did you bring her?” and then gave specifications of someone else who was to be brought. Those messengers then sent her back. She did not want to come back—the place was so beautiful. Afterwards, signs of tying with ropes could be seen on her legs.
Indians have a custom of tying the corpse to a stretcher to be carried to the funeral pyre.
A high-school-educated Muslim housewife was in critical condition after an operation on her uterus.
“I saw four persons in black clothes who asked me to go with them. I was afraid of them. They took me up. In the sky there was an open space which was green. God was sitting there. He asked me my name. He said that I shouldn’t have been brought up. They sent me back.” Upon coming to, she complained bitterly to the nurse, “Sister, why did you save me? I liked this place. I wish to go back there.”
Indian Christians also experienced this “you-are-the-wrong-person” type of rejection. Even a Swedish missionary was tangled up in the error and “brought up” mistakenly.
A West Bengali clerical worker was a Christian.
The patient was dead and all preparations for the funeral were being made. Suddenly he regained consciousness. He complained of pain in his body. When asked about it he told that he was pushed down and got hurt. He remembered that he was taken up through a long staircase. Then he saw a beautiful scene, lovely flowers. In there he saw a man dressed in white sitting with an open book. He looked into the book and told the men who had taken him there that they have brought the wrong person. And then the messengers pushed him down.
He did not explain how his soul was actually manhandled, but when he came to, his body was in pain
Characteristically for India, an authoritarian manner is attributed only to the lower echelon of heavenly personnel, the messengers.
The man with the “book of accounts” is always pictured as a benign ruler. An aura of sacredness rests upon him regardless of whether he is called “the man in a white robe” or “God.” The same aura of sacredness appears in the visions of religious figures seen by patients in the United States. When they appear, the patient “lights up.”
Is this air of sacredness attributed to any of the visionary environments? All heavenly abodes are fashioned after this-world reality: flowers, trees, gardens, streams, gates, tall buildings, castles, silver palaces, temples, and even staircases.
The common denominator is not any special kind of heavenly form or “spiritual stuff” from which forms emerge. However, the earthly appearances are often illuminated in visionary intensity and perfection. The only unity which transcends the bewildering variety of imagery is experiential rather than perceptual. Common to most is the experience of “great beauty beyond reality,” joy, peace, and serenity. Most of the dying seem to experience something completely gratifying, a value fulfillment—they don’t want to “come back.” Sometimes these experiential qualities seem to irradiate the visitors with lightened brightness and intensified colors.
The images themselves, if they indeed depict reality, seem to be symbolizations—signs pointing to an existence beyond our perceptual capabilities but not congruent with that reality. If the dying indeed tell about another world, then terms of beauty, harmony, peace, and value fulfillment are the closest ways they are able to describe it.
Visions of Another World: Afterlife as Seen Through the Eyes of the Dying is an extract from At the Hour of Death: A New Look at Evidence for Life After Death by Karlis Osis, Ph.D and Erlendur Haraldsson, Ph.D.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published October 2012
Size: 229 x 152 mm